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Stars’ top line firing on all cylinders, push Predators to the brink

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It would appear that the Dallas Stars have emptied the Nashville Predators’ well of ideas on how to stop them.

After three close games where Nashville walked away victors of two of them, the Predators have succumbed to a relentless forechecking team that’s clogged the neutral zone and found solid goaltending from Vezina nominee Ben Bishop.

There are just so many little things the Stars are doing right at the moment, and they now hold a 3-2 series lead after a 5-3 win against the Preds on Saturday afternoon, their second straight win in the series and second game in a row where they’ve pumped five goals into the twine.

There’s one team left in these Stanley Cup Playoffs that has yet to give up a power-play goal. That team currently has its foot on the throat of the Predators.

The Stars are 11-for-11 now on the penalty kill through five games of their Western Conference First Round series. It’s been a big boon for the Stars in a series that was tight through the first three games.

Scoring for the Predators has come at a premium in this series, and having a completely misfiring power play has made it much worse.

Nine goals against in his past two outings isn’t what you’d expect from Pekka Rinne, but that’s the reality right now as the reigning Vezina winner isn’t making the saves required. The Predators can’t handle Dallas’s forecheck when it’s going full steam ahead and Rinne is taking the brunt of it.

Nashville’s offense has fallen off a cliff, which is saying a lot for a team that wasn’t a high-scoring offense during the regular season.

Rocco Grimaldi‘s third goal of the series to give the Predators a 1-0 lead was just the sixth goal by a Nashville forward in the series up until that point.

Grimaldi has been great, but he shouldn’t be leading the team at the moment. Ryan Johansen finally picked up his first of the series later in this one. Kyle Turris, too.

Radulov’s brace to open the second period opened up a 3-1 lead. Johansen’s goal pulled the Predators back one, but Tyler Seguin snatched the two-goal cushion back before the second was over.

Dickinson’s second of the game put Dallas up 5-2 and other than Turris’ response 28 seconds after that, the Predators didn’t show their teeth much.

Jamie Benn finished with three assists and his line with Seguin and Radulov combined for seven points. Bishop made 30 saves.

Game 6 goes Monday at American Airlines Arena. The time for the game is TBD. 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Roope Hintz becoming important part of Stars lineup

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If you didn’t know who Roope Hintz was before the start of the postseason, you probably weren’t alone. But the 22-year-old has already found a way to leave his mark on the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With his team trailing 2-1 in the best of-seven series against the Predators, the young Finn scored a pair of goals in Dallas’ 5-1 victory over Nashville in Game 4. Even before scoring his first two goals of the playoffs, he kept finding a way to stand out for all the right reasons.

“He’s generating chances, and in Game 1, I thought he was the one that dictated our drive play to their net,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery told NHL.com. “Game 2, he wasn’t as dominant, but last game he was very effective and (in Game 4) the puck goes in. It’s good for your confidence, but we know what he brings to our team.

“He’s a legitimate top six (forward) and he’s made our team have two lines.”

One concern surrounding the Stars is their scoring depth. Yes, they have Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov, but secondary scoring has been an issue in previous seasons. Hintz and veteran trade-deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello have formed a nice partnership on the Stars’ second line. Together, they’ve combined to score five times in four games.

Hintz put up nine goals and 22 points in 58 games with the Stars during the regular season, but it became increasingly clear that he was getting more and more comfortable as the season wore on, as he managed to accumulate 17 of those points in the final 30 games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But his journey to being a second-line player for the Stars had its fair share of bumps, especially in 2018-19. Between Oct. 20 and Jan. 20, he was assigned to the AHL’s Texas Stars three times. As disappointing as that must have been for him, it was probably for the best.

“You’ve got give credit to the staff there,” Montgomery said, per the Dallas Morning News. “Every time Roope went down, he came back a better player. … The last time he came up, he took his game to another level.”

The difficult part for him will be to maintain this level of play and production for the remainder of the playoffs, but he’s off to a very encouraging start. Even though the Predators are probably a deeper team, the Stars have found a way to make this a best-of-three series because of their power play and secondary scoring.

Let’s see if they can pull off the upset.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Granlund’s goal the difference as Predators edge Stars in Game 3

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Mikael Granlund‘s seeing-eye shot with 8:19 left in the third period snapped a 2-2 tie and helped give the Nashville Predators a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in Game 3. Nashville now leads the series 2-1 with Game 4 Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET; USA).

The Predators stormed out to a 2-0 lead 14 minutes into the second period as they kept Ben Bishop busy in the Dallas net. Eight minutes after Rocco Grimaldi scored his second goal of the series, Nick Bonino floated a pass to Filip Forsberg, who then added another highlight-reel tally to his resume.

Dallas continued to battle back and broke through minutes after Forsberg’s goal when Mats Zuccarello netted his second in three games. Tyler Seguin would connect after some great work behind the Nashville net by captain Jamie Benn to even the score at two.

Not long after Seguin’s goal, Benn had a glorious chance of his own, but he was denied by the left pad of Pekka Rinne, who finished with 40 saves.

“Just desperation,” Rinne told NBCSN’s Joe Micheletti afterward about the save. “It was a good save at the time.”

But an icing call three minutes later put the Stars in their own zone for a faceoff and unable to get a change. Kyle Turris won the draw and Granlund wired a shot that got by Bishop for the eventual game-winning goal.

Stars head coach Jim Montgomery threw out Benn, Seguin and Alex Radulov in hopes of finding an equalizer, but Rinne and the Predators stood strong to during a third straight one-goal game.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Predators vs. Stars: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you want to get cute with it, you can deem Predators – Stars as the battle of the team with a coach who worse a horse mask versus the team whose CEO called his own players, uh, horse-blank. And, hey, considering the “nontraditional” roots of both franchises, this also features teams with fans most likely to ride actual horses. It’s all enough to leave you hoarse.

But beyond all of that horsin’ around, the Predators and Stars truly are remarkably similar teams.

While the combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin has been far hotter this season, each squad boasts two goalies (Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros) who could conceivably be ridden to strong performances during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Most other West teams wish they merely had one such goalie.

Unfortunately, the Stars and Predators also need that great goaltending the most among West teams, at least judging by this season.

The Stars and Predators needed to rank in the top four in fewest goals allowed this season, as they weren’t setting scoreboards on fire.

Dallas scored just 209 goals this season, tied for third-worst, joining the Islanders as the only other playoff team in the bottom 10. The Predators weren’t that much better (236 goals, 13th-worst), and they languished with the NHL’s least efficient power play at a still-rather-shocking 12.9 percent.

Strange things can happen during hockey’s postseason, and goalies are a strange breed beyond that, but this sure seems like it’s going to be a tight-checking nail-biter of a series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | USA, SN1, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 9:30 p.m.: Predators @ Stars | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. Predators @ Stars | USA, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Predators @ Stars | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD

FORWARDS

STARS: Despite Jim Lites’ criticisms, the Stars should thank the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov for providing most of their scoring. Seguin (80 points) and Radulov (74 points) have the most points of any players in this series, and while Benn is no longer the player who once won the Art Ross Trophy, he ranked third among the Stars with 53 points, 27 of which were goals.

The drop off from the top forwards and everyone else is steep, as Radek Faksa is the fourth-highest scoring Stars forward with just 30 points. Faksa’s known for a strong defensive game more than anything else, so he’s not chopped liver, but the point is that this is a top-heavy bunch.

One interesting wild card is Mats Zuccarello, though. The poor soul got hurt blocking a shot in his first Stars appearance, but he’s slated to be in the lineup during Game 1, and the Stars are tinkering with a Zuccarello – Benn combination. Could a one-line team become a two-line team?

Of course, both Nashville and Dallas lean heavily on their defensemen to score, but that’s for the next section.

PREDATORS: At a quick glance, the Predators’ top line seems inferior, with Ryan Johansen‘s 64 points leading the way. Injuries cloud such judgments, though, as Viktor Arvidsson managed 34 goals in just 58 games (!) this season, while Filip Forsberg was his usual dynamic self with 28 goals and 50 points in 64 games. The gap between these two teams’ top line is small, if they aren’t outright even.

On paper, the Predators should boast better depth, but they really haven’t been able to click. Kyle Turris has suffered through a pretty miserable season, and Mikael Granlund‘s been mouse-quiet since being traded to Nashville. Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds is struggling through an almost tragically rough contract year.

ADVANTAGE: Nashville, by a hair. While Faksa ranked fourth in Stars forward scoring with 30 points, the Predators had seven forwards who had 30+, and Turris almost certainly would have hit that mark if he wasn’t limited to 55 games. Granlund scored 54 points counting his superior totals with the Wild. Zuccarello makes the argument more fascinating, though.

DEFENSE

STARS: After Seguin, Radulov, and Benn, the Stars’ next three leading scorers were all defensemen: John Klingberg (10 goals, 45 points), Miro Heiskanen (12G, 33P), and Esa Lindell (11G, 32P). Klingberg managed to get that many points in 64 games, and as Stars fans will tell you until your ears are red, he’s very worthy of his hype as a future Norris hopeful.

Where the Stars’ top guys are grappling at least slightly with Father Time, the Stars’ trio is in their primes, with Klingberg at 26, Lindell 24, and Heiskanen somehow this great already at 19.

This is a modern group, and while they’re not as hyped or as well-compensated as the Predators’ blueliners, they’re gaining fast as far as on-ice effectiveness is concerned.

PREDATORS: For the standards of Nashville’s defensemen, you could count 2018-19 as a bit of an off-year, but they likely remain the deepest group in the NHL, or at least rank highly in that regard.

Much like Dallas, three of Nashville’s defensemen ranked in the top six in overall team scoring: Roman Josi (15 goals, 56 points), Mattias Ekholm (8G, 44P), and Ryan Ellis (7G, 41P). Despite being limited to 63 games played, P.K. Subban almost hit double digits in goals with nine, and finished with 31 points. Missing time likely exaggerated worries about Subban’s overall game, as he remains a strong two-way player.

It will also be interesting to monitor Dante Fabbro. He’s a fairly well-regarded prospect, but coaches are reluctant to trust rookies, especially late-arriving ones, and Laviolette is not really an exception. (See: Tolvanen, Eeli.) Fabbro could give Nashville’s third pairing a boost, and while that wouldn’t be a revolutionary change, it could matter in a series where the margin of error figures to be slim.

ADVANTAGE: Predators, but not by as much as some would think. Dallas’ defense is underrated, but Nashville’s group is among the most potent and polished in the NHL.

GOALTENDING

STARS: If Ben Bishop stayed healthy (an unfortunately common phrase for Bishop), he’d get some heavy Vezina hype. He generated a .934 save percentage this season, brilliant even compared to his very strong career average of .921. Bishop put together an absurd .969 save percentage over nine March games, with a league-best .959 save percentage since February (among anyone who played at least two games, sorry Christopher Gibson).

Anton Khudobin hasn’t been far behind, producing a strong .923 save percentage in 41 games.

Jim Montgomery’s system and some strong young defensemen helped, but this Stars team shut opponents down because of stellar goaltending.

PREDATORS: If you had to wager on the best goalie pairing heading into 2018-19, you could have done worse than the (“father – son”) combination of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros.

Goalies are about as easy to predict as cats are to herd, so they haven’t been the best … but they’ve still been fine. Rinne sported a solid .918 save percentage this season, and after a rough start, Saros ended up with a respectable .915 mark.

Of course, Rinne’s had his playoff nightmares, so people will wonder if those demons will crop again. Maybe the more interesting question is: if they do, will Laviolette go to Saros if needed?

ADVANTAGE: Stars, with mild concerns that Bishop isn’t 100 percent. Of all the West series, this is the one where you could be reasonably confident about both tandems. Again, though: they’re goalies.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

What if the Stars’ first line is horse manure?

One could imagine some Stars executive gloating about giving Seguin “tough love,” but this was really about Seguin finally getting the bounces that didn’t go his way, pre-horse-bleep. If that luck dries up once again, can other lines shovel in some goals?

(Note: yes, you could ask similar questions about the Predators’ depth, too.)

Can the Predators’ power play do something?

NHL officials are notorious for “putting away their whistles” during the playoffs, relative to the regular season, but special teams will still be prominent. Actually, considering how tight this series could be – and how much each team struggles to score goals – getting a few markers on the man advantage might just swing the series.

If nothing else, the Predators spent big to improve this weakness. Wayne Simmonds has slipped, but his resume as a PP specialist is robust. Brian Boyle‘s big body is useful in screening goalies, even a jumbo-sized one like Ben Bishop. Things have looked better at times recently, but overall, the power play looms as a potential problem for the Preds.

PREDICTION

NASHVILLE IN 6. These two teams are structured very similarly, so here’s betting that the Predators are just a little better at making this formula work.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Capitals vs Hurricanes

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Montgomery steers Stars to playoffs in college-to-pro debut

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DALLAS (AP) — While the NHL buzzed in early January over the Dallas Stars CEO profanely ripping the franchise’s two best players, first-year coach Jim Montgomery worked to figure out how to make defense the priority for a team that was having trouble scoring goals.

Never mind that the former journeyman forward was also making the rare college-to-pro jump two years after winning an NCAA title at the University of Denver, and guiding a club that expected to reach the playoffs right away following a decade of mostly missing the postseason.

Fast-forward three months, and the Stars are preparing for a Western Conference first-round series starting Wednesday night in Nashville. And Tyler Seguin, one of the objects of Jim Lites’ ire, has been impressed by the stewardship of his third coach in three years.

”I mean, look where we are,” said Seguin, who was criticized along with captain Jamie Benn in somewhat shocking comments by Lites. ”He did such a great job not only with our team but individually in meetings. Getting the most out of each player individually, and it’s benefited all of us this year.”

Montgomery had a few strong words of his own not long after Lites used plenty of profanity along with ”terrible” and ”embarrassing” to describe the play of Benn and Seguin. The coach said he was frustrated that he hadn’t been able to ”change the culture of mediocrity.”

Through all of that drama, the Stars stayed in the playoff picture. Dallas never really lost its grip on a wild-card spot that was wrapped up with two games remaining in the regular season. It’s the club’s first postseason berth since 2016.

For that, the Stars credit finding, and sticking to, their identity – a strong defensive game in front of standout goalies Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. As a result, Montgomery sees a team that’s better on the road and in the third period, and more consistent.

”We’ve been able to change our mentality and our idea of what work ethic is,” Montgomery said. ”We’ve done that all together. That’s the growth you want to see because that’s how you get everyone believing in it. Players have had ownership in it and so has the coaching staff.”

Both Seguin and Benn finished among the top 25 in the NHL in scoring in each of their first five seasons together. Neither did it this season. Seguin led the Stars with 80 points (33 goals, 47 assists) while finishing 28th in the league.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 2017-18, Seguin had his first 40-goal season, but the Stars collapsed in the final weeks, getting swept on a six-game road trip while losing eight straight. This time, Dallas went 3-0-1 on a critical four-game Canadian swing that put them on the brink of a playoff spot.

”We thought we were going to score goals this year a little bit more and playing more of an offensive game,” Seguin said. ”But we’re a defensive team that’s gonna outwork and gonna outlast you. After the All-Star break, that’s what he talked to us about is, ‘What is our identity?’

”As a team and as a leadership group, we came up with it and went from there.”

Montgomery benched Alexander Radulov for a period after the team’s No. 2 scorer talked back to the coach during a 2-1 loss to the last-place Los Angeles Kings.

That setback capped the second of two season-worst four-game losing streaks about a month apart. The first was about two weeks before Lites summoned two reporters who cover the team regularly to unload on Benn and Seguin. The second was about two weeks after.

The turnaround started immediately after the second skid, in the first game before the All-Star break. And when Montgomery returned from the break, he said he intended to be more upbeat. Several times after losses, he said he liked the club’s direction, and its playoff chances.

A two-time champion as a coach in junior hockey and a two-time NCAA Frozen Four qualifier at Denver, Montgomery acknowledged that his first NHL experience was challenging.

”I didn’t know what the unexpected was going to be,” Montgomery said. ”And the unexpected ended up being some big moments. All those things have made us tougher. And if you’re tougher now, you’ve got to be tough going into playoffs or you have no chance.”

This rookie coach still has that chance.

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